COLUMBIA — Three decades after the state designed its plan to fund education, House Speaker Bobby Harrell is laying the groundwork for its first major overhaul.
Since 1977, South Carolina's population has swelled by almost 1.5 million people, more than a dozen districts sued the state over equity and the "Corridor of Shame" has become synonymous for schools along a stretch of Interstate 95.
"The real life consequences are — we've operated under the same distribution formula for the last 30 years — needs have changed," said Harrell, R-Charleston.
Harrell created a committee to review the funding and distribution formula and provide recommendations for improvement by November 2008. It's one of three significant movements under way involving the investigation of education funding and equity among all students in the state.
Education spending accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state's budget.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex will release the findings of a report Thursday that's aimed at finding a simple, fair, adequate and transparent system of funding, according to its outlined objectives.
In short, the existing formula measures the taxing ability of each county based on its appraised property, essentially directing more state money to poorer districts and forcing wealthier ones to raise property taxes.
The formula has left wealthier districts like Charleston with shortfalls that have to be equalized in separate legislation each year, and many expect property tax reform the Legislature passed in 2006 that swaps revenue from sales taxes with taxes on homes to increase those deficits. Concerns also include the reliability of partially funding schools with a revenue source that follows the economy's ebbs and flows.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, is chairman of the Senate Education Funding Study Committee, a third group investigating the issue. The committee, made up of members of the Senate Education and Finance committees, was formed in June 2006 but has not made any formal recommendations for systemic change.
Their primary focus has been studying the way property tax reform will affect school funding and the unique financial strains on fast-growing districts such as Dorchester 2 and to poorer areas like the ones along I-95, Hayes said.
"I don't think the General Assembly is going to take away the tax swap, but we do need to find a way to make it work," Hayes said. His committee will meet in mid-December to review the findings of Rex's report.
Harrell said he wants the House committee to work with Rex and the senators to come up with a solution.
"This is a huge task," Harrell said. "Everybody needs to be working together. With the amount of money we're talking about, it's important that we get as much information as we can and take the time necessary to get it right."
Harrell gave the committee until next November to report its recommendations, although he said the Legislature could take up reform bills as early as January when they return to Columbia.
A number of proposals are likely to be introduced next year, including one by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau. Grooms has been researching the funding disparity between children across the state and is drafting legislation.
Appointed to the House committee are 15 members, including Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, and Annette Young, R-Summerville. The members are both Republicans and Democrats, black and white and represent the richest and poorest areas of the state.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R- Laurens, will serve as chairman.
"I am glad this time has finally gotten here," Duncan said. "We have a monumental task on our hands."
The committee will meet Dec. 10 to organize.